Friday, March 18, 2011

Flying LAM - ten years down the line

My first ever trip across the borders of South Africa was a quick hop to Mozambique. That was about ten years ago. As I was not used to flying at that time and very excited about my first stamp I was going to get in my passport. I guess so excited that I did not pay much attention to the details of the whole trip. Besides, I was sent to deliver parts in Beira, had to stay over one night and did not know if I had enough money with me to pay the hotel. So apart from excitement I think nervousness was also interfering with the awareness senses. What I do remember very well from that trip was my flight with the Moszambique carrier LAM (Linhas Aereas de Mocambique), as well as the airport at Maputo. If I had to make a list of the nice memories from my first trip, then these two would unfortunatey not have made that list. They did however make the list of memorable events that shaped my opinion of African Airlines and African airports.

So last Monday, ten years later, I was yet again on my way to Mozambique, only the second time on LAM via Maputa. I did a trip in between to Vilanculos, but that was straight with SAA and back. This time it was to Pemba further up north, and also with LAM. On my last trip I was flying in a plane called "Smokey Joe", aptly named that way because of smoke that was coming out of the engine all the time. I was not a frequent flyer at that time, so I could not really judge the competency of the pilots, but I remember that I was doubting their ability very much for various reasons. When you fly a lot you get the feel of the plane's movements and sounds to such an extent that you can actually tell if something is going wrong long before the flight attendants reveal anything on their taut faces. Unless of course when they are so used to a particular pilot's way of flying and continue serving coffee and tea like nothing is wrong despite what might be happening in the cockpit. Usually when the descent starts it feels as if you are literally gliding down towards the runway. Quite a heavenly feeling when a pilot knows what he is doing, like a butterfly coming down to softly land on the petals of a lily flower. The LAM pilots are definitely not appreciative of the beauty of a butterfly's flying abilities. You get the impression that they have started the descent way too early and consequently have to throttle up from time to time to keep altitude, making your heavenly feeling dispappear very quickly. It is like they have completely misjudged their altitude, their time to landing, the distance to the runway, their speed, everything. The anouncement "Cabin crew, ten minutes to landing" sometimes only comes 10 seconds before the plane hits the runway like a ton of bricks. The approach is everything but a steady glide and gentle landing like the butterfly does. You as a passenger keeps wondering whether you are actually descending or not. Anyway, this has not changed, despite the fact that my flight to Pemba happened on brand new Embraer 190 aircraft. The aircrafts might be new, but the pilots however were never "updated". It was also the first time where I have seen that the little white towel on the head rests preventing people's heads from smearing hair oil all over the upholstery are being used for commercial advertizing instead. As if this was not enough, even on the tray tables they had these horrendous ads displayed. Don't we see enough of that on TV? Not really adding to the beauty of the interior design at all. My return flight from Pemba however was on an Airbus A319, probably one of the first 18 build in 1996. I did not see smoke coming from the engines so I cannot confirm if it was Smokey Joe or not. It looked a bit old and dilapidated inside, with only enough room space for a pair of feet sans the legs. Well, after the flight it felt like I was without legs.

I was quite surprized though when we entered the airport building at Maputo. It was clear that it was brand new, and I learned later that it has opened only very recently. I was however brought back to my first trip when we walked from the International Arrivals to the Domestic Departures only to arrive in the same little departure hall I found myself in ten years ago. It was like a dejavu. It even had the same red chairs from that time. I even remembered the scene playing off in front of me outside the departure hall where one aircraft's front wheel was changed right before departure and right in front of the passengers who were already a bit annoyed for being delayed for more than two hours already.  The plane that was initially supposed to take us to Johannesburg was pulled away by a tractor at the last minute before departure only to be replaced with one that had a flat wheel. Changing a wheel in front of the waiting passengers was like removing a fly from the soup in front of the patron who ordered the soup. The problem was fixed but their still remains some uncertainty on the effectiveness of the exercise. Anyway, in Johannesburg we landed hard like usual with that new wheel taking all the strain and all seemed well afterwards. I have to say that I expected the same chaos at the airport like ten years ago. I remember a couple of small kids running towards me shouting "Airport tax, airport tax! Follow me, follow me!" There was nothing of the sorts this time. As a matter of fact, I don't even need a visa for Mozambique. I wish that Angola could wake up and do away with visas. Anyway, this is Mozambique and there is clearly a huge difference between the two countries, despite the fact that they were both Portuguese colonies that went through a civil war. As a matter of fact, the people are actually astonishly different too, but that is for another post. So, the airport was much more organized and relaxed than ten years ago. Just don't buy anything to drink, I paid R30 for a small Cuppicino that tasted more like an Espresso. Before the second sip we were told to board again and I had to leave behind the most expensive and bad tasting coffee I've ever had in a foreign country.

New International Departure hall
Old Departure hall
I have to admit that after an absence of ten years there has definitely been some improvement in Mozambique. The people are very friendly in general and the food on LAM was ten times better than what you get on TAAG. The flight attendants were all beautiful and friendly and if I ever had to choose between Mozambique and Angola, I would definitely settle for the first. The pilots still need a bit of practicing though, but in general it was a pleasant experience this time. I would have no problem visiting Mozambique again, but would still prefer to do it with SAA's pilots.

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